Phonemic atomism

SOCRATES: Is a proposition resolvable into any part smaller than a name?
HERMOGENES: No; that is the smallest. 

(Cratylus, Plato)

In language there are levels of units. These are sentence, clause, phrase, word and phoneme. Here Socrates narrows down the meaningful unit to the word or name.

A phoneme in itself has no meaning as such. They are the building blocks of words. The three phonemes (and letters coincidentally in this case) which make up cat (C-A-T) have no meaning in themselves. Only when combined as a particular sequence have they been designated a particular meaning. It is not natural but agreed upon by convention.

In some ways, atoms are like phonemes. Atoms extant in the observed reality have “characteristics” unique to each element. Phonemes have characteristics given to them by language creators. Not all languages have identical number and range of sounds. Some have more. Others differentiate where another may make no such distinction. But one important thing is clear: before a unit is meaningful there are smaller units which have no meaning, but only a play of differences. Socrates (and Hermogenes) pointed this out as did Saussure two millennia later.

Linguistic determinism and relativity

In philosophy determinism is a theory of causation where what precedes a situation determines the outcome. While this is a secular theory is related to its religious cousin, predestination.

Linguistic determinism is the theory that a language determines the way you think of the world. There is a weak version termed linguistic relativity where it influences but not determines thought.

I am a fan of linguistic relativity. There are many things which linguistic determinism cannot explain. For example, when one has speaks two languages which one determines the way they think? Is such a person have a split personality? Does this also suggest that you cannot think without language?

To me, language is a tool that helps thinking but is not necessary for thinking. A beautiful sunset can be appreciated without words. But likely we appreciate it better with words. Language probably defines thinking better by giving it a defined limitation. The name (signifier) categorises it, separates it from some other name and therefore some other concept. It also allows us to share it. I am sure animals have a language albeit a crude one with limited meaning that has aided their survival. Being able to say how beautiful the sunset is is probably not something that would help them stay away from predators. Thus temporal affluence affords us this time to not only appreciate sunsets but to also hone our communication.

I cannot see this as being built into the brain (no language acquisition device as such) but more a generalisation of what sounds can be. The ability to vocalise a greater range of sounds allowed for a larger vocabulary. Generalised pattern recognition again allowed for more sophisticated messages to be made and transmitted. For these reasons vocabulary and grammar will vary between languages and within languages. And it can explain language change as well. Universal grammar simply has too many problems and inflexibilities to explain change and difference. Much of this problem has to do with an obsession with The Absolute or eidos.

Grammar or experience?

What is wrong with the idea of “universal” in the Universal Grammar of Chomsky? It is that what is taken as being universal is wrong. It is not the grammar in the brain that is universal, but rather it is the human experience that is universal. We all have the same set of senses and mental faculty. We all input the same kinds of sensory and perceptive experience. But we also have the same kinds of choices and decisions to make about language which do not necessarily need to be a brain-module specific to operate. 

“Language is transformational” is partly correct, but it is probably at a more a general rather than being a specific mechanism that uses the properties of reality, sound and image to produce what is language. Certainly we are creatures who like to express themselves and to communicate with other creatures. We are undoubtedly social creatures.